Frank London’s Klezmer Brass Allstars: Carnival Conspiracy

[8 January 2006]

By Deanne Sole

For knowledge of Frank London’s genealogy and of the antiquity of his descent, I refer you to the great Franklondoerline Website, from which you will learn at greater length how klezmer giants were born into this world and how he came to be one of them, being of the tribe of The Klezmatics and of the tribe of Hasidic New Wave for which uncomely bands he has: “hooted the trumpet, parpled the cornet, rawked horns, struck pianos, bumped percussion, and sung jumbunctiously through the bazaars and temples of his native land.”

He also likes Rabelais. As witness the name of the eighth tune, “Pantagruel, Shiker Hindert Prozent”. As witness the liner notes which make extravagant claims, repeat themselves, and shout, “flatulance” and “bumgut”. As witness four men playing instruments through their arses in the illustrations by Richard Kenigsman. As witness the drunken heaves of brass. As witness a farting, fruity tuba. As witness the Carnival in the title. As witness Frank London writing in the liner notes, “For this concerns Carnival”, meaning a fierce explosion of urban energy that inverts hierarchies and makes physicality into a virtue.

Item, a carnival is reckless. Item, it is cathartic. Listener, is Carnival Conspiracy a Carnival? It slides, rolls, bleats, shakes, whees, and parps as if the walls of music are being knocked down but these walls are like the walls of an inflatable castle and they stand upright no matter how much they are battered and made to flex. The musicians are seasoned old wheezers and they know their klezmer too well to shatter it. That sharp Eastern European gypsy touch is there. The clarinet spins itself into sweet dizziness.

Manjara Sandowska grrrrrowls “ah-ha!” throughout “In Your Garden Twenty Fecund Fruit Trees”, which is the kolomeyka that sets the album off. She huffs and blows like a merry rambumpus while her friends, the brass, rush behind to pick her up and bear her away with her skirts flapping. Then they put out their hands to pull you up by the roots too, my merry bystander, onlooker, and toper of drowsy ales, because no one should be allowed to stand still during these Ukrainian dances. Those horns would toss you about, if only you weren’t so large and so removed from them, you sitting there in your room with the volume control in your hand. Ah, if only they were here in the flesh! Then they’d sweep you up. But alas 9564738 times for them, they’re trapped inside a CD.

What’s more, they have the tuba pacing at their heels to keep the beat with his regular pa-pa-pa. Who can be an uncontained verb with that taskmaster up their arses? But that’s always the way with a carnival. Society stands in the background. Without society and trained musicians and tubas to keep time there’d be nothing but chaos and how would we have our catharsis then, when the whole world is fun and nothing is fun? There’s no frisson when you burst in a void.

So Lorin Sklamberg will use his trained voice to show us what a man drunk on his own melancholy would sound like with the right enunciation. So the influences of different nationalities on “Midnight Banda Judía” meet together neatly though they pretend to be jerking the song apart. So “Who Knows One” approaches harshness but knows to avoid it. So there is sometimes a certain edge to the sound that suggests Mexican music as well as Jewish; and the two are well-married. So “A Time of Desire - Curha Mix” with its electronic swooshing fits into an album that is mainly acoustic. So all of it fits.

Marvellous, my hearties, the way a unifying vision brings the disparate parts together! It’s supposed to be a carnival after all, not a revolt. And this is the niggling problem that lies at the back of Carnival Conspiracy. The music is so focused, and so faithful to the wild mood that Frank London has planned for it, that there’s no surprise and hence no catharsis. Listening to Carnival Conspiracy is like watching Meryl Steep act. The action on the surface is perfect, but at the back of your mind you’re aware that you’re watching an intelligent person practice their craft, not a real woman falling in love or weeping.

This doesn’t mean that their enthusiasm rings false, but it does mean that you’re not going to get the same kind of pleasure out of Frank London’s Klezmer Brass Allstars that you might from a more innocent band. What you will get is the pleasure of listening to music that marries cleverness with exuberance. It’s not simple, being a smart naïf, but this one is worth listening to.

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